Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Selfby Susan J. Brison
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On July 4, 1990, while on a morning walk in southern France, Susan Brison was attacked from behind, severely beaten, sexually assaulted, strangled to unconsciousness, and left for dead. She survived, but her world was destroyed. Her training as a philosopher could not help her make sense of things, and many of her fundamental assumptions about the nature of the self and the world it inhabits were shattered.
At once a personal narrative of recovery and a philosophical exploration of trauma, this book examines the undoing and remaking of a self in the aftermath of violence. It explores, from an interdisciplinary perspective, memory and truth, identity and self, autonomy and community. It offers imaginative access to the experience of a rape survivor as well as a reflective critique of a society in which women routinely fear and suffer sexual violence.
As Brison observes, trauma disrupts memory, severs past from present, and incapacitates the ability to envision a future. Yet the act of bearing witness, she argues, facilitates recovery by integrating the experience into the survivor's life's story. She also argues for the importance, as well as the hazards, of using first-person narratives in understanding not only trauma, but also larger philosophical questions about what we can know and how we should live. Bravely and beautifully written, Aftermath is that rare book that is an illustration of its own arguments.
Patricia J. Williams
Jo Ann Beard
How do you cope with the catastrophic calamity of sexual assault and near murder if you are a philosopher dedicated to rational discourse? Those are the questions posed by [author] Brison in a poignant account. . . . A moving diary of personal trauma and recovery.
"An intellectually stimulating read. . . . Brison's reflections . . . will resonate with anyone who has experienced great pain and suffering, as well as with the people who love and care for them. . . . This is a brave and inspiring book . . . [which] goes far beyond typical memoirs of surviving dreadful circumstances."Publishers Weekly
"[A] wise and extremely moving reflection on [individual trauma]."Patricia J. Williams, The Nation
"Aftermath is an affecting and spirited record of how [Brison] managed, with great difficulty, to put [her life] back together, but in new and unexpected forms. . . . [It] works as the story of a life pulled back from the brink because, at its best, it exemplifies its own arguemnt for the lasting power of narrative."Martin Levin, Toronto Globe and Mail
"Brison's personal narrative and research on surviving rape will attract broad readership, and the more philosophical reflections will attract those interested in a multidisciplinary look at how individuals and society cope with the threat and reality of violence. A courageous work on how society treats trauma victims and how trauma victims can reclaim the recovery process and their lives."Booklist
"Brison's descriptions of the horrors of the first weeks after the assault are absorbing and perceptive. . . . [She] is no less engaging when she examines the literature of trauma, victimization and recovery. . . . [An] inspiring volume."Mimi Wesson, Women's Review of Books
"How do you cope with the catastrophic calamity of sexual assault and near murder if you are a philosopher dedicated to rational discourse? Those are the questions posed by [author] Brison in a poignant account. . . . A moving diary of personal trauma and recovery."Kurkus Reviews
"I think this is a great bookI use those words sparinglydeeply revealing and fundamentally pessimistic. It is more painful and far less sentimental than Anne Frank's diary."Jonathan Mirsky, The Spectator
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AftermathViolence and the Remaking of a Self
By Susan J. Brison
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2003 Susan J. Brison
All right reserved.
Surviving Sexual Violence
On July 4, 1990, at 10:30 in the morning, I went for a walk along a peaceful-looking country road in a village outside Grenoble, France. It was a gorgeous day, and I didn't envy my husband, Tom, who had to stay inside and work on a manuscript with a French colleague of his. I sang to myself as I set out, stopping to pet a goat and pick a few wild strawberries along the way. About an hour and a half later, I was lying face down in a muddy creek bed at the bottom of a dark ravine, struggling to stay alive. I had been grabbed from behind, pulled into the bushes, beaten, and sexually assaulted. Feeling absolutely helpless and entirely at my assailant's mercy, I talked to him, calling him "sir." I tried to appeal to his humanity, and, when that failed, I addressed myself to his self-interest. He called me a whore and told me to shut up.
Although I had said I'd do whatever he wanted, as the sexual assault began I instinctively fought back, which so enraged my attacker that he strangled me until I lost consciousness. When I awoke, I was being dragged by my feet down into the ravine. I had often, while dreaming, thought I was awake, butnow I was awake and convinced I was having a nightmare. But it was no dream. After ordering me, in a gruff, Gestapo-like voice, to get on my hands and knees, my assailant strangled me again. I wish I could convey the horror of losing consciousness while my animal instincts desperately fought the effects of strangulation. This time I was sure I was dying. But I revived, just in time to see him lunging toward me with a rock. He smashed it into my forehead, knocking me out, and eventually, after another strangulation attempt, he left me for dead.
After my assailant left, I managed to climb out of the ravine, and was rescued by a farmer, who called the police, a doctor, and an ambulance. I was taken to emergency at the Grenoble hospital where I underwent neurological tests, x-rays, blood tests, and a gynecological exam. Leaves and twigs were taken from my hair for evidence, my fingernails were scraped, and my mouth was swabbed for samples. I had multiple head injuries, my eyes were swollen shut, and I had a fractured trachea, which made breathing difficult. I was not permitted to drink or eat anything for the first thirty hours, although Tom, who never left my side, was allowed to dab my blood-encrusted lips with a wet towel. The next day, I was transferred out of emergency and into my own room. But I could not be left alone, even for a few minutes. I was terrified my assailant would find me and finish the job. When someone later brought in the local paper with a story about my attack, I was greatly relieved that it referred to me as Mlle M. R. and didn't mention that I was an American. Even by the time I left the hospital, eleven days later, I was so concerned about my assailant tracking me down that I put only my lawyer's address on the hospital records.
Although fears for my safety may have initially explained why I wanted to remain anonymous, by that time my assailant had been apprehended, indicted for rape and attempted murder, and incarcerated without possibility of bail. Still, I didn't want people to know that I had been sexually assaulted. I don't know whether this was because I could still hardly believe it myself, because keeping this information confidential was one of the few ways I could feel in control of my life, or because, in spite of my conviction that I had done nothing wrong, I felt ashamed.
When I started telling people about the attack, I said, simply, that I was the victim of an attempted murder. People typically asked, in horror, "What was the motivation? Were you mugged?" and when I replied, "No, it started as a sexual assault," most inquirers were satisfied with that as an explanation of why some man wanted to murder me. I would have thought that a murder attempt plus a sexual assault would require more, not less, of an explanation than a murder attempt by itself. (After all, there are two criminal acts to explain here.)
One reason sexual violence is taken for granted by many is because it is so very prevalent. The FBI, notorious for underestimating the frequency of sex crimes, notes that, in the United States, a rape occurs on an average of every six minutes. But this figure covers only the reported cases of rape, and some researchers claim that only about 10 percent of all rapes get reported. Every fifteen seconds, a woman is beaten. The everydayness of sexual violence, as evidenced by these mind-numbing statistics, leads many to think that male violence against women is natural, a given, something not in need of explanation and not amenable to change. And yet, through some extraordinary mental gymnastics, while most people take sexual violence for granted, they simultaneously manage to deny that it really exists--or, rather, that it could happen to them. We continue to think that we--and the women we love--are immune to it, provided, that is, that we don't do anything "foolish." How many of us have swallowed the potentially lethal lie that if you don't do anything wrong, if you're just careful enough, you'll be safe? How many of us have believed its damaging, victim-blaming corollary: if you are attacked, it's because you did something wrong? These are lies, and in telling my story I hope to expose them, as well as to help bridge the gap between those who have been victimized and those who have not.
Sexual violence and its aftermath raise numerous philosophical issues in a variety of areas in our discipline. The disintegration of the self experienced by victims of violence challenges our notions of personal identity over time, a major preoccupation of metaphysics. A victim's seemingly justified skepticism about everyone and everything is pertinent to epistemology, especially if the goal of epistemology is, as Wilfrid Sellars put it, that of feeling at home in the world. In aesthetics, as well as in philosophy of law, the discussion of sexual violence in- or as- art could use the illumination provided by a victim's perspective. Perhaps the most important issues posed by sexual violence are in the areas of social, political, and legal philosophy, and insight into these, as well, requires an understanding of what it's like to be a victim of such violence.
One of the very few articles written by philosophers on violence against women is Ross Harrison's "Rape: A Case Study in Political Philosophy." In this article Harrison argues that not only do utilitarians need to assess the harmfulness of rape in order to decide whether the harm to the victim outweighs the benefit to the rapist, but even on a rights-based approach to criminal justice we need to be able to assess the benefits and harms involved in criminalizing and punishing violent acts such as rape. In his view, it is not always the case, contra Ronald Dworkin, that rights trump considerations of utility, so, even on a rights-based account of justice, we need to give an account of why, in the case of rape, the pleasure gained by the perpetrator (or by multiple perpetrators, in the case of gang-rape) is always outweighed by the harm done to the victim. He points out the peculiar difficulty most of us have in imagining the pleasure a rapist gets out of an assault, but, he asserts confidently, "There is no problem imagining what it is like to be a victim" (Harrison 1986, 51). To his credit, he acknowledges the importance, to political philosophy, of trying to imagine others' experience, for otherwise we could not compare harms and benefits, which he argues must be done even in cases of conflicts of rights in order to decide which of competing rights should take priority. But imagining what it is like to be a rape victim is no simple matter, since much of what a victim goes through is unimaginable. Still, it's essential to try to convey it.
In my efforts to tell the victim's story--my story, our story--I've been inspired and instructed not only by feminist philosophers who have refused to accept the dichotomy between the personal and the political, but also by critical race theorists such as Patricia Williams, Marl Matsuda, and Charles Lawrence, who have incorporated first-person narrative accounts into their discussions of the law. In writing about hate speech, they have argued persuasively that one cannot do justice to the issues involved in debates about restrictions on speech without listening to the victims' stories. In describing the effects of racial harassment on victims, they have departed from the academic convention of speaking in the impersonal, "universal," voice and relate incidents they themselves experienced. In her groundbreaking book, The Alchemy of Race and Rights (1991), Williams describes how it felt to learn about her great-great-grandmother, who was purchased at age 11 by a slave owner who raped and impregnated her the following year. And in describing instances of everyday racism she herself has lived through, she gives us imaginative access to what it's like to be the victim of racial discrimination. Some may consider such first-person accounts in academic writing to be self-indulgent, but I consider them a welcome antidote to scholarship that, in the guise of universality, tends to silence those who most need to be heard.
Philosophers are far behind legal theorists in acknowledging the need for a diversity of voices. We are trained to write in an abstract, universal voice and to shun first-person narratives as biased and inappropriate for academic discourse. Some topics, however, such as the impact of racial and sexual violence on victims, cannot even be broached unless those affected by such crimes can tell of their experiences in their own words. Unwittingly further illustrating the need for the victim's perspective, Harrison writes, elsewhere in his article on rape, "What principally distinguishes rape from normal sexual activity is the consent of the raped woman" (Harrison 1986, 52). There is no parallel to this in the case of other crimes, such as theft or murder. Try "What principally distinguishes theft from normal gift-giving is the consent of the person stolen from." We don't think of theft as "coerced gift-giving." We don't think of murder as "assisted suicide minus consent." Why not? In the latter case, it could be because assisted suicide is relatively rare (even compared with murder) and so it's odd to use it as the more familiar thing to which we are analogizing. But in the former case, gift-giving is presumably more prevalent than theft (at least in academic circles) and yet it still sounds odd to explicate theft in terms of gift-giving minus consent (or coerced philanthropy). In the cases of both theft and murder, the notion of violation seems built into our conceptions of the physical acts constituting the crimes, so it is inconceivable that one could consent to the act in question. Why is it so easy for a philosopher such as Harrison to think of rape, however, as "normal sexual activity minus consent"? This may be because the nature of the violation in the case of rape hasn't been all that obvious. Witness the phenomenon of rape jokes, the prevalence of pornography glorifying rape, the common attitude that, in the case of women, "no" means "yes," that women really want it.
Since I was assaulted by a stranger, in a "safe" place, and was so visibly injured when I encountered the police and medical personnel, I was, throughout my hospitalization and my dealings with the police, spared the insult, suffered by so many rape victims, of not being believed or of being said to have asked for the attack. However, it became clear to me as I gave my deposition from my hospital bed that this would still be an issue in my assailant's trial. During my deposition, I recalled being on the verge of giving up my struggle to live when I was galvanized by a sudden, piercing image of Tom's future pain on finding my corpse in that ravine. At this point in my deposition, I paused, glanced over at the police officer who was typing the transcript, and asked whether it was appropriate to include this image of my husband in my recounting of the facts. The gendarme replied that it definitely was and that it was a very good thing I mentioned my husband, since my assailant, who had confessed to the sexual assault, was claiming I had provoked it. As serious as the occasion was, and as much as it hurt to laugh, I couldn't help it, the suggestion was so ludicrous. Could it have been those baggy Gap jeans I was wearing that morning? Or was it the heavy sweatshirt? My maddeningly seductive jogging shoes? Or was it simply my walking along minding my own business that had provoked his murderous rage?
After I completed my deposition, which lasted eight hours, the police officer asked me to read and sign the transcript he'd typed to certify that it was accurate. I was surprised to see that it began with the words, "Comme je suis sportive ..." ("Since I am athletic ...")--added by the police to explain what possessed me to go for a walk by myself that fine morning. I was too exhausted by this point to protest "No, I'm not an athlete, I'm a philosophy professor," and I figured the officer knew what he was doing, so I let it stand. That evening, my assailant was formally indicted. I retained a lawyer, and met him along with the investigating magistrate, when I gave my second deposition toward the end of my hospitalization. Although what occurred was officially a crime against the state, not against me, I was advised to pursue a civil suit in order to recover unreimbursed medical expenses, and, in any case, I needed an advocate to explain the French legal system to me. I was told that since this was an "easy" case, the trial would occur within a year. In fact, the trial took place two and a half years after the assault, due to the delaying tactics of my assailant's lawyer, who was trying to get him off on an insanity defense. According to article 64 of the French criminal code, if the defendant is determined to have been insane at the time, then, legally, there was "ni crime, ni delit"--neither crime nor offense. The jury, however, did not accept the insanity plea and found my assailant guilty of rape and attempted murder.
As things turned out, my experience with the criminal justice system was better than that of most sexual assault victims. I did, however, occasionally get glimpses of the humiliating insensitivity victims routinely endure. Before I could be released from the hospital, for example, I had to undergo a second forensic examination at a different hospital. I was taken in a wheelchair out to a hospital van, driven to another hospital, taken to an office where there were no receptionists and where I was greeted by two male doctors I had never seen before. When they told me to take off my clothes and stand in the middle of the room, I refused. I had to ask for a hospital gown to put on. For about an hour the two of them went over me like a piece of meat, calling out measurements of bruises and other assessments of damage, as if they were performing an autopsy. This was just the first of many incidents in which I felt as if I was experiencing things posthumously. When the inconceivable happens, one starts to doubt even the most mundane, realistic perceptions. Perhaps I'm not really here, I thought, perhaps I did die in that ravine. The line between life and death, once so clear and sustaining, now seemed carelessly drawn and easily erased.
For the first several months after my attack, I led a spectral existence, not quite sure whether I had died and the world went on without me, or whether I was alive but in a totally alien world. Tom and I returned to the States, and I continued to convalesce, but I felt as though I'd somehow outlived myself. I sat in our apartment and stared outside for hours, through the blur of a detached vitreous, feeling like Robert Lowell's newly widowed mother, described in one of his poems as mooning in a window "as if she had stayed on a train / one stop past her destination."
My sense of unreality was fed by the massive denial of those around me--a reaction I learned is an almost universal response to rape. Where the facts would appear to be incontrovertible, denial takes the shape of attempts to explain the assault in ways that leave the observers' worldview unscathed. Even those who are able to acknowledge the existence of violence try to protect themselves from the realization that the world in which it occurs is their world and so they find it hard to identify with the victim. They cannot allow themselves to imagine the victim's shattered life, or else their illusions about their own safety and control over their own lives might begin to crumble. The most well-meaning individuals, caught up in the myth of their own immunity, can inadvertently add to the victim's suffering by suggesting that the attack was avoidable or somehow her fault. One victims' assistance coordinator, whom I had phoned for legal advice, stressed that she herself had never been a victim and said that I would benefit from the experience by learning not to be so trusting of people and to take basic safety precautions like not going out alone late at night. She didn't pause long enough during her lecture for me to point out that I was attacked suddenly, from behind, in broad daylight.
We are not taught to empathize with victims. In crime novels and detective films, it is the villain, or the one who solves the murder mystery, who attracts our attention; the victim, a merely passive pretext for our entertainment, is conveniently disposed of--and forgotten--early on. We identify with the agents' strength and skill, for good or evil, and join the victim, if at all, only in our nightmares. Although one might say, as did Clarence Thomas, looking at convicted criminals on their way to jail, "but for the grace of God, there go I," a victim's fate prompts an almost instinctive "it could never happen to me." This may explain why there is, in our criminal justice system, so little concern for justice for victims--especially rape victims. They have no constitutionally protected rights qua victims. They have no right to a speedy trial or to compensation for damages (although states have been changing this in recent years), or to privacy vis-a-vis the press. As a result of their victimization, they often lose their jobs, their homes, their spouses--in addition to a great deal of money, time, sleep, self-esteem, and peace of mind. The rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," possessed, in the abstract, by all of us, are of little use to victims who can lose years of their lives, the freedom to move about in the world without debilitating fear, and any hope of returning to the pleasures of life as they once knew it.
People also fail to recognize that if a victim could not have anticipated an attack, she can have no assurance that she will be able to avoid one in the future. More to reassure themselves than to comfort the victim, some deny that such a thing could happen again. One friend, succumbing to the gambler's fallacy, pointed out that my having had such extraordinary bad luck meant that the odds of my being attacked again were now quite slim (as if fate, although not completely benign, would surely give me a break now, perhaps in the interest of fairness). Others thought it would be most comforting to act as if nothing had happened. The first card I received from my mother, while I was still in the hospital, made no mention of the attack or of my pain and featured the "bluebird of happiness," sent to keep me ever cheerful. The second had an illustration of a bright, summery scene with the greeting: "Isn't the sun nice? Isn't the wind nice? Isn't everything nice?" Weeks passed before I learned, what I should have been able to guess, that after she and my father received Tom's first call from the hospital they held each other and sobbed. They didn't want to burden me with their pain--a pain that I now realize must have been greater than my own.
Some devout relatives were quick to give God all the credit for my survival but none of the blame for what I had to endure. Others acknowledged the suffering that had been inflicted on me, but as no more than a blip on the graph of God's benevolence--necessary, fleeting, evil, there to make possible an even greater show of good. An aunt, with whom I had been close since childhood, did not write or call at all until three months after the attack, and then sent a belated birthday card with a note saying that she was sorry to hear about my "horrible experience" but pleased to think that as a result I "will become stronger and will be able to help so many people. A real blessing from above for sure." Such attempts at a theodicy discounted the horror I had to endure. But I learned that everyone needs to try and make sense, in however inadequate a way, of such senseless violence. I watched my own seesawing attempts to find something for which to be grateful, something to redeem the unmitigated awfulness: I was glad I didn't have to reproach myself (or endure others' reproaches) for having done something careless, but I wished I had done something I could consider reckless so that I could simply refrain from doing it in the future. For some time I was glad I did not yet have a child, who would have to grow up with the knowledge that even the protector could not be protected, but I felt an inexpressible loss when I recalled how much Tom and I had wanted a baby and how joyful were our attempts to conceive. It was difficult to imagine getting pregnant, because it was so hard to let even my husband near me, and because I felt it would be harder still to let a child leave my side.
It might be gathered, from this litany of complaints, that I was the recipient of constant, if misguided, attempts at consolation during the first few months of my recovery. This was not the case. It seemed to me that the half-life of most people's concern was less than that of the sleeping pills I took to ward off flashbacks and nightmares--just long enough to allow the construction of a comforting illusion that lulls the shock to sleep. During the first few months after my assault, my close friends, my sister, and my parents were supportive, but most of the aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends of the family notified by my parents almost immediately after the attack didn't phone, write, or even send a get well card, in spite of my extended hospital stay. These are all caring, decent people who would have sent wishes for a speedy recovery if I'd had, say, an appendectomy. Their early lack of response was so striking that I wondered whether it was the result of self-protective denial, a reluctance to mention something so unspeakable, or a symptom of our society's widespread emotional illiteracy that prevents most people from conveying any feeling that can't be expressed in a Hallmark card.
In the case of rape, the intersection of multiple taboos--against talking openly about trauma, about violence, about sex--causes conversational gridlock, paralyzing the would-be supporter. We lack the vocabulary for expressing appropriate concern, and we have no social conventions to ease the awkwardness. Ronald de Sousa (1987) has written persuasively about the importance of grasping paradigm scenarios in early childhood in order to learn appropriate emotional responses to situations. We do not learn--early or later in life--how to react to a rape. What typically results from this ignorance is bewilderment on the part of victims and silence on the part of others, often the result of misguided caution. When, on entering the angry phase of my recovery period, I railed at my parents: "Why haven't my relatives called or written? Why hasn't my own brother phoned?" They replied, "They all expressed their concern to us, but they didn't want to remind you of what happened." Didn't they realize I thought about the attack every minute of every day and that their inability to respond made me feel as though I had, in fact, died and no one had bothered to come to the funeral?
Excerpted from Aftermath by Susan J. Brison Copyright © 2003 by Susan J. Brison. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
Catharine MacKinnon, University of Michigan and the University of Chicago
Helen Benedict, author of "Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes" and "Recovery: How to Survive Sexual Assault"
Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., author of "Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character" and "Odysseus in America"
Dominick LaCapra, Cornell University, author of "Writing History, Writing Trauma" and "History and Memory after Auschwitz"
Mieke Bal, University of Amsterdam
Andrea Ashworth, author of "Once in a House on Fire"
Sara Ruddick, author of "Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace"
Meet the Author
Susan J. Brison is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth College, where she also teaches in the Women's Studies Program. She is the coeditor of Contemporary Perspectives on Constitutional Interpretation and the author of the forthcoming Speech, Harm, and Conflicts of Rights (Princeton).
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